90. THE TENANT (1976)
It’s a shame that the behaviour of filmmaker Roman Polanski away from the camera sullies the enjoyment of his works, and in particular for horror fans his brilliant ‘Apartment Trilogy’. The first two entries, Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) set the bar very high, but in adapting Roland Topor’s 1964 novel Le locataire chimerique Polanski capped off his unofficial three film set with another astounding film. In an extraordinary choice, as well as directing Polanski cast himself in the lead role of Trekovsky, a man who acquires a small Parisian apartment after the previous tenant Simone tried to kill herself by jumping out of her living room window. Visiting the previous occupant in her hospital bed, the fully bandaged semi mute woman offers no comment to Trekovsky other than a pained scream. Struggling to settle in to his new apartment home thanks to constant complaints from his neighbours about noise, which Trekovsky isn’t making, odd occurrences such as finding a human tooth in a small hole in the lounge wall start to chip at his sanity. When he wakes up one morning to discover his face painted in Simone’s make-up he starts to question whether the apartment block residents are trying to goad him in to replacing Simone, right down to her suicidal leap down to the courtyard. The is-he-isn’t-he-mad story arc was never more creepily explored than in The Tenant, and as with Repulsion no easy answers are provided. The Kafkaesque story notes are obvious throughout, but there’s clearly something more menacing at play. Whether its Trekovsky’s fractured mind, the apartment block occupants, or the apartment itself having a sinister effect, its left to the viewer to decide. In filmmaking terms, kudos must be given to Polanski for a startling performance in both his first ever lead role and his continued brilliance behind the camera.
89. INSIDIOUS (2011)
If you’re going to borrow from a movie, you may as well scrounge from one of the best. Writer and director James Wan gave himself a tough job following up his debut movie being that his first directorial effort was Saw (2004) one of the greatest horror thrillers of all time. His next two films Dead Silent (2007) and Death Sentence (2007) failed to woo critics and audiences, so in 2010 he reteamed with friend and Saw co-writer Leigh Whannell for Insidious (2011). When the Lambert family move in to their new home, strange noises in the attic draw their son Dalton up to the loft space to investigate. Spotting something in the shadows Dalton falls in to a mysterious coma, his spirit seemingly having disappeared to another dimension. Despite the tragedy the Lamberts try to get on with their lives while they seek treatment for their son. When paranormal activity in the house increases, as a last resort they turn to a small team of demonologists to help. A new family home, a ‘lost’ child, a team of paranormal investigators out of their depth; it’s all incredibly reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s story for Poltergeist (1982). But rather than the ‘safe’ scares that Tobe Hooper used to make Poltergeist a box office hit, Wan uses all of the best J-horror tricks to craft a much more sinister story. Like with many horror films, once the explanation for the shadowy figure that randomly appears around the Lambert’s home is revealed the film stutters a little. Discussions about the ‘astral plan’ don’t quite live up to the promise of the demonic entity tormenting the Lamberts, but Wan at least commits to his story and follows through with an ending that is sure in its intentions and is visually memorable. A final downbeat twist, though sequel baiting, provides a nice concluding jolt.
88. BURIED (2010)
George Sluizer’s movie Spoorloos / The Vanishing (1988) had one of the most shocking climaxes in cinema history when the film’s protagonist, desperate to know the fate of his missing girlfriend, awakens to find himself buried alive. The film that preceded it was more curious than creepy though, focusing on the strange relationship between its lead hero, his new girlfriend, and his previous partner’s abductor. Buried (2010) took the brave step of extending the movie’s crushing finale to a full-length movie, for a ninety minute long hit of anxiety. Directed by Rodrigo Cortés from a screenplay by Chris Sparling, the movies narrative and style is pleasingly awash with Hitchcockian overtones, an unravelling mystery and a fight against time. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is an American truck driver working in Iraq. For reasons unknown he wakes up to find himself buried alive with only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company. When sand starts leaking into the coffin Paul has to work desperately with the authorities who must locate him for a rescue. It was a daring choice, not only to pin a movie down to one tight location, but to place the success of the film on the shoulders of Ryan Reynolds, an actor associated at the time with more mainstream fare such as Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2002) and Just Friends (2005). But Reynolds carries the entire picture with a surety of performance, never resorting to histrionics but still conveying the panic of this most terrifying of prospects. What could have been a wafer thin plot is marshalled well by Cortés, starting the movie in highly tense territory and building up from there. The movies frantic conclusion is almost unbearable, the viewer having already spent so much time confined to the most claustrophobic of locales.
87. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
It takes a special kind of director to coin his own euphemism. Director David Lynch has, with his own brand of mesmerising and mystifying cinema, managed to give birth to the term ‘Lynchian’. Among its connotations is a confounding sense of fear, crafted by such sinister films as Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch’s most terrifying ride takes place on the Lost Highway (1997), a movie that baffled critics but scared audiences in ways they did not yet know were possible. The bewildering storyline is twofold, following saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) who is taunted by mysterious videotapes and the murder of his wife, and a car mechanic who apparently turns in to Fred after he is arrested for killing his spouse. The most frightening scene sees Pullman confront the ‘Mystery Man in Black’ at a house party (played by Robert Blake, who in a chilling real life twist was tried for the murder of his wife in 2001). The man asks Pullman to call him at his house, and when Pullman dials he actually answers the phone. It is this reality bending sense of horror that infuses Lost Highway and makes it one of the most warped thriller films of recent years. Blake’s recurring Mystery Man keeps the thrills ticking over as the story movies from intriguing to nightmarish with the same lack of narrative sense that a real nightmare has. Lynch cemented his reputation as the chief purveyor of thriller-weird with the excellent Mulholland Drive (2001) and the twisted Inland Empire (2006).
86. THE CHANGELING (1980)
Two years into the slasher boom it seemed all forms of subtle scare mongering had died. With fare such as The Driller Killer (1979), Zombie Holocaust (1979), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), Maniac (1980), and Motel Hell (1980) on offer fans were not interested in re-runs of The Haunting (1968). Playwright Russell Hunter had other ideas though and wrote one of the best paranormal chillers since Hill House was last visited, The Changeling (1980). Supposedly basing the story on his own spooky exploits staying at Henry Treat Rogers Mansion in Colorado, Hunter tells of Dr. John Russell who retreats to a large Victorian House after the death of his wife and daughter. He discovers that the mansion is haunted by the ghost of a boy murdered some years before. As Russell investigates he unravels a mystery linked to a wealthy local Senator. Guiding the traditional scares was Hungarian born director Peter Medak. He creates a haunted venue on a par with the aforementioned Hill House and the grand Overlook Hotel. Caught up in its floating curtains and dingy corridors is George C. Scott as Russell. The looks of fright on such a staunch character actor portrays the scares superbly well, none more so then when a lone red ball bounces down the stairs to his feet, rolled by someone or something on the first floor of the house an hour after Russell threw the child’s ball in to a nearby river. Italian director Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava) made an unofficial sequel The Changeling 2 (aka Until Death) (1987) that had no story connections to the original picture.
85. PULSE (2001)
In 1989 director Kiyoshi Kurosawa released his third film Sweet Home (1989). A uniquely Japanese offering, the film’s arrival was twinned with the release of the 8-bit computer game also entitled Sweet Home. Though Kurosawa’s movie was well received, taking more than a few cues from The Haunting (1963), it was the videogame that had the strongest legacy. Its creepy mansion setting and puzzle solving gameplay inspired the million selling Resident Evil game series. Following this Kurosawa wrote and released one of the finest thriller films in Japanese horror with Cure (1997). It took a little while to top this release but in 2001 Kurosawa wrote and directed Pulse (2001), one of the best entries in the J-horror swathe of top quality horror films that put western scary movies to shame at the turn of the millennium. One of the first films to utilise the internet as a plot tool, Pulse tells two parallel stories suggesting that the world-wide-web could be a portal for spirits to enter the physical world. A unique premise it produced some of the standout images of the burgeoning J-horror genre. It also featured a threat that was truly unknown; not many people understood the internet at the time so it appeared almost anything could happen as the central characters dug in to the mysterious deaths apparently linked to ominous online happenings. Unlike many horror films which struggle to match the preceding thrills with a climax that justifies the effort, Kurosawa takes his tale in to the stratosphere in the final act, exploding the scale of events well beyond what most viewers would be expecting. Pulse was received well by critics upon release and garnered an even fonder following amongst fans, quickly gathering cult classic status. As with many of the top rated J-horror films an American remake followed; Pulse (2006) was not a patch on its originator though and was just another entry in the growing failed J-horror remake genre.
84. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
It takes an extra special thriller movie to get the attention of the Academy Awards. The Oscars aren’t fond of scary movies, but despite this the bestowed all five of the major awards on Jonathon Demme’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) became only the third film in Hollywood history to achieve this following It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975). So personable is actor Anthony Hopkins and so parodied has his Hannibal Lecter been its hard to appreciate him as the cold, genius-minded killer he was in 1991. Terrifying he was though, despite his limited time on screen, and scary movie fans remain thankful that Gene Hackman and Jeremy Irons did not land the role as was the case at various stages of the film’s development. Foster got credit for embodying the paradoxical horror and charm of Lecter as Agent Clarice Starling, mesmerised and repulsed by Lecter in equal measure. But its Ted Levine as serial killer Buffalo Bill who is all too often over looked. His startling performance is the reason Silence stands the test of time as an excellent scary movie. Lecter’s first outing in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) remains a top notch thriller, but Ridley Scott’s Silence sequel Hannibal (2001) was a crushing disappointment, Julianne Moore unable to recreate the chemistry Foster had with Hopkins, and Lecter utilised far too often and in far too exploitative a fashion. Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) restored the faith in Lecter by once again minimising his use, and also allowed Ralph Fiennes to add another terrifying villain to his back catalogue with his grandstanding take on ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Francis Dolarhyde. Some years later Mads Mikkelsen delivered another portrayal of Lecter for the television show Hannibal, easily the measure Hopkins performance. The less said about Peter Webber’s Hannibal Rising (2007) the better.
Director Roman Polanski had already forged a unique filmmaking style with such pictures as Nóź w wodzie (aka Knife in the Water) (1961) and Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (aka The Beautiful Swindlers) (1964) when he shot Repulsion (1965). His first collaboration with French writer and director Gérard Brach, the movie was one of the first to inject a sense of avant-garde surrealism to the modern horror picture. Dispensing with traditional story telling the film staggers and sways along from scene to scene as actress Catherine Deneuve portrays the ultimate slow slide into insanity. Deneuve plays Carol, a Belgian manicurist tasked with looking after her sisters London flat while she is on holiday. As Carol’s neuroticism increases, in particular her fear of men, she confines herself to the apartment and its ever more squalid conditions. The so-called ‘descent into madness’ has been a journey utilised in all manner of literature, movies included, but it has never been more startlingly displayed as it was by Polanski in 1965. Carol’s hallucinations are maddeningly drawn by the director and the lack of catharsis in the conclusion ensures the movie’s smell of degradation and mental suffering wafts well past the final credits. The reason for Carol’s breakdown is wonderfully hidden, making her actions and violence all the more shocking. A shrewd parting shot of a young Carol in a family photo, juxtaposed against her fate as she’s carried away, hints at a much darker story. What become known as Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ received its part two in the form of Rosemary’s Baby(1968) and was completed in 1976 when the director gave a tour de force starring in his own picture Le Locataire (aka The Tenant) (1976).
82. THE LAST EXORCISM (2010)
Forty four years after its release The Exorcist (1973) still holds heavy influence over the horror genre. Independent film director Daniel Stramm provides us with his take on the demonic exorcism story by blending Friedkin’s masterwork with another iconic horror film The Blair Witch Project (1999). The result was another victory for the shaky-cam horror sub-genre. We are introduced to Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a minister who performs exorcisms. His faith in the church is shaken when his disabled son dies, Marcus believing that medical science could have saved his life. In order to expose the ministry as a fraud he plans to perform one final exorcism and takes a film crew along to document its obvious fakery. When Marcus goes to the aid of a farmer who believes his daughter is possessed he captures more than he bargained for when it transpires the girl is actually under a demon’s spell. The combination of the two aforementioned films works well, the scenes of Nell (Ashley Bell) succumbing to the demon inside looking especially effective on handheld camera. Stramm keeps the audience and Rev. Marcus guessing for a nail-biting length of time as to whether Nell is possessed or not and the fiery conclusion is pleasingly downbeat. Stramm was also no stranger to found footage films, directing the experimental A Necessary Death (2008), and his expertise with the format is clear throughout. This tense exorcism “mockumentary” turned an $18 million profit in the United States ensuring that a sequel, The Last Exorcism: Part II (2013), followed three years later. The second instalment ditched the found-footage format for a traditional movie shoot, but rejoined Nell as she realises the demon that possessed previously is back for round two. Despite another strong performance from Bell Part II was a by the numbers, unspectacular sequel.
81. GET OUT (2017)
As enjoyable as the likes of Final Destination (1999) and Saw (2004) were at the turn of the millennium, their success at the box office had a disconcerting effect on horror scripts. Unless plot lines had a clever, pleased-with-itself hook or a complex, twisting storyline they were unlikely to make it across a studio executive’s desk. There was a time though when a simple horror scenario was enough. Television shows such as The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected showed that creepy gold could be spun from the simplest of plots. With the Saw sequels and their ilk achieving lower box office takings thanks to needlessly complicated stories, the uncluttered delights of straight forward horror slowly returned, Woman In Black (2012), It Follows (2014), The Guest (2014), The Witch (2015). With a solid career as a comedic actor filling out his CV, Jordan Peele surprised many in 2017 by entering the horror genre, and writing and directing his first feature film, Get Out (2017). With significant nods to The Stepford Wives (1975) the plot follows mixed race couple Chris and Rose as they visit Rose’s parents for the first time. As an African-American, Chris has reservations as to how he will be received by Rose’s well-to-do family. The racial tensions are made clear from the off but it’s how Peele manipulates these as the story progresses which is truly masterful. For an excruciating early period the viewer is unsure whether the unusual behaviour from Rose’s family is their reaction to their daughter dating a man of colour, or whether there is something more ominous afoot. This being a fright film, it’s not difficult to guess which way the story will turn, but the plot twist which explains things is not as obvious as first thought. Coupled with the uniqueness of Peele’s villains, a modern white liberal community, and some well marshalled gore-free scares, Get Out (2017) was not only a fantastic directorial debut but a thriller film not afraid to make the most out of a compact but creepy idea.